How many times must the cycle repeat?
An abhorrent act by a Cal Poly fraternity is followed by widespread condemnation. Next comes suspension of the frat, followed by new rules aimed at curbing the offensive behavior and finally, rehabilitation.
A year or two or three later, we repeat the entire process.
We say never again. The Cal Poly community — students, parents, faculty, staff, administration, alumni — should not have to put up with it.
If fraternity members cannot behave like respectful human beings on their own accord, they don't belong here.
The Cal Poly administration has already invested a great deal of time and energy in regulating and monitoring fraternities — and in reacting to the problems they create.
Yet still we have another racist episode — white fraternity brothers posing in blackface and stereotypical urban gang wear — that reflects horribly on the university and sets back Cal Poly's efforts to recruit a more diverse student body.
The campus already has been struggling to attract African-American students in particular. In the fall of 2017, 219 African-American students were selected, but only 47 actually enrolled. The gangster/blackface photos, which were picked up by The New York Times and Washington Post, among other outlets, hurt Poly’s reputation even more.
Cal Poly isn't the only offender; Google “fraternities and racism” and a slew of articles pop up from around the country.
One of them, from the ThinkProgress news site, says the racist behavior is longstanding: “As campuses began to become more open to the middle class and to black students, Greek organizations resisted class and race diversity. Frats were a way for white upper-class men to separate themselves from an increasingly diverse student population.”
Does that mean the Greek system cannot change?
Of course not. But how long is it going to take for Poly Greeks to finally get that racist behavior, sexual assaults, hazing, rampant and dangerous binge drinking will not be tolerated?
Neither, for that matter, will ignorance of the kind claimed by Kyler Watkins, the student who was photographed with his face plastered black. In a letter of apology issued on Friday, Watkins said he wasn’t aware of the racist message he was conveying.
“Growing up white and privileged, I was truly unaware of how insensitive I was to the racial implications of blackface. I was, in fact, a member of the Lambda Chi Alpha ‘black team,’ wore black clothes and painted my face,” he wrote.
We’ve got to ask, were all of his fraternity brothers equally unaware of the meaning of blackface?
And what about the fraternity's officers? Even rudimentary training in cultural awareness should have given them a clue that blackface and gang attire were not appropriate for a Greek event.
If not even one of them realized that blackface is considered highly offensive, that doesn’t say much for our entire educational system, up to and including Cal Poly. It’s also strong evidence of the need for an ethnic studies course requirement for every student, which is on a list of demands presented to the administration last week by campus organizations. Additional training for all Greek pledges is on the list, too.
To its credit, Cal Poly’s Interfraternity Council, which governs Cal Poly’s fraternities, has committed to change.
"We want to acknowledge our role in contributing to an environment that perpetuates racism, and are making a commitment from this day forward to hold our community more responsible and hold them accountable to the values we strive to live by," the organization said in a statement.
The Executive Board of the Interfraternity Council says it will release a plan of action on April 20.
For now, all Cal Poly fraternities are on voluntary probation, and have curtailed some activities.
The fraternity that held the party where the offensive photos were taken, Lambda Chi Alpha, is on suspension.
Under the circumstances, a time-out for all fraternities is entirely appropriate, to allow for a thorough review and a consideration of student demands for change.
At the very least, we strongly urge the university to make it clear that any repeat of this type of incident will result in the permanent expulsion of fraternities from here on out.
It's time Cal Poly put the welfare of the entire student body first, even if it means the end of fraternities.